Dec 1, 2016; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclones head coach Steve Prohm talks with guard Matt Thomas (21) during the first half against the Cincinnati Bearcats at James H. Hilton Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — The uniforms go on and the locker room is lit. Emotions could hit Iowa State’s four and five-year senior stalwarts Matt Thomas, Monté Morris and Naz Mitrou-Long like a ton of weathered bricks when they face molten-hot Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. tonight at Hilton Coliseum, but sadness surrounding an impending home-court ending will be overshadowed by an ongoing jolt of joy that promises to stretch well into the most important month of March.
“A lot of emotions,” said Thomas, who will start his 56th consecutive game. “I’m just looking forward to getting out there one more time.”
It’s the last time they’ll hear their names produced with a full-throated cry from legendary PA announcer Gary Wade, and then a slight crack in his voice.
Last tip. Last intros. Last, last, last time at Hilton as a program-changing pack of core seniors take a curtain call, with one final image enhancement crucible left against the cumbersome Cowboys.
“There’s no other way that we’d want it,” Mitrou-Long said. “You don’t want to come into a game with anyone believing it’s a cupcake, or you’re going to get blown out. You want a game that’s pretty much going to be even. Two teams that are very hot — two hottest teams in the big 12 right now and a lot of people are saying it’s them more than us and we want to come out and have a fight, man. … “I’m excited, man. I’m ready for it. it’s going to be an emotional night. I’m going to fight the tears.”
He and 14,384 fans of the No. 24 Cyclones. The memories. The huge wins. Carefully eye-balled 3s and masterfully-crafted lob dunks.
These seniors — including transfers Deonte Burton, Darrell Bowie and Merrill Holden — have left an indelible impression on this program, this town, this university.
“Yes, this is our last home game, but we still have to come out and play like we should and win,” Burton said.
So pass the tissues, in private. There’s a big game to win.
“Everybody say it’s sad, yeah, it’s sad but it’s more sad when you haven’t gave back to the university wins and things like that,” said Morris, who is poised to become the nation’s all-time leader in assist-to-turnover ratio and leads ISU in scoring at . “So, I always ask myself, ‘What is enough games to be satisfied?’ It will never be enough games. You say things go by fast once you’re having fun, so I’m definitely having fun.”
What a ride.
Thomas endured social media barbs in his first two seasons at Iowa State, but has instead battled bone spurs this season to raise his career 3-point shooting total to 233 makes (and counting), which ranks third all-time.
“Whatever happens happens,” Thomas said. “I’ll try to hold it together. I don’t predict that I’ll get too overly emotional but if if a tear falls down my cheek. I’m not going to try to hide that. A lot of hard work and a lot of good times have been here out in Hilton for the last four years so i’m just going to let whatever happens happen.”
Morris, whose sterling 4.77-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio will set a stunning new national standard, has turned the ball over just 13 times in 15 conference games, came to the program to “change the culture,” according to his Flint Beecher High school coach, Mike Williams.
He’s clearly done that, but not without early freshman help from tough-minded transfer stud, De’Andre Kane. who bruised, battered and built Morris into a great figure within this storied program.
“I try to take a lot from what he taught me,” Morris said.
Mitrou-Long learned patience his freshman season, when he played sparingly. As a sophomore he earned his status as a Cowboy killer, then reprised that role more broadly many times over in the seasons since.
He’s the only active player to win at every Big 12 venue — and enters tonight’s matchup with 243 career 3-pointers, second all-time at ISU, despite enduring double hip surgery and donning a medical redshirt last season.
“I didn’t know if I’d get this year back,” Mitrou-Long said. “I didn’t know if this would be my senior night. … It’s just staying locked in man. Understanding the task at hand. It’s a true testament, again, to some great careers, but at the end of the day, we want to win.“
They’ve all done that plenty. The Cyclones (19-9, 11-5) will try to hand Oklahoma State (20-9, 9-7) its first conference loss in 41 days. Win or lose, they’ll further second-year head coach Steve Prohm’s tradition of delivering postgame speeches to the beloved and fiercely loyal fans who cheered their careers to lofty heights.
“We’ve got a lot of points combined together,” said Morris, who could have bolted for the NBA after his junior season, but chose to return to Ames. “A lot of wins, a lot of losses, but more wins. We’re happy with where we’re at right now. We accomplished things this year that so many people thought we couldn’t. Before the season we had tasks, and things like that, and winning at Allen Fieldhouse was one of them, so we’re just knocking down a wall and we’re happy that we’re doing that.”
Keep knocking. Hilton will salute all of you. And the fans will need the tissues more than the players as the heat of the moment winds down into goodbye speeches.
“I’ll be, probably, teary-eyed (tonight) because these guys have meant a lot to me,” Prohm said. “Their character and their commitment to this program has been second to none.”